Notes from Piers, no 180 – Burn Baby Burn!

Piers Clark talks highlander dress, Kielder cottages and The Most Ethical Water Company award.

For the past 49 years I have effortlessly avoided Burns Night. I was aware of its existence but, being based in London, there is not a much call to partake in a Scottish-centric celebration focussed on (arguably) the most famous Scotsman ever, Poet Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns. Burns Night just wasn’t part of my whirlwind social calendar (a hectic nightly schedule of eating chocolate in front of Netflix). This year things changed. This year my wife Stella and I were invited to the annual Northumbrian Water Burns Night celebration. The invite stipulated Highland Dress.

This presented my first challenge. I have a standard dinner jacket which I wear to various back-slapping events throughout the year. Like most DJs, it is too big and makes me look like an oversized penguin. That said, it is at least a straightforward piece of attire and it takes less than 2 minutes to put on. The most complicated it gets is with the addition of a cumberbund, which I have always regarded as a silly piece of clothing designed simply to make fat men thinner and one I have therefore resolutely refused to wear. Highland dress however is a completely different matter. There is obviously the kilt (which I initially wore backwards until the nice Hire Shop man pointed out, in a tone of voice that suggested he thought I wore skirts more frequently than I actually do, that the pleats should be at the back). Then there is the sporran (why they don’t just put pockets in the kilt is beyond me), garters, a little dagger that you tuck in your knee-high socks, a waistcoat, a top-jacket, a bow tie, a special kilt-pin AND a pair of unique kilt shoes which have the most complex laces you can possibly imagine. The Hire Shop man was just as flummoxed as I when it came to how to do up the laces (not quite so clever now Mr I-Know-How-To-Wear-a-Pleated-Skirt, eh?!). Thankfully Mr Google provided the answer. One of the marvels of the modern day is that there are internet chat rooms for literally every kind of need. You can admire my handiwork in the attached photo.

Before I am accused of cultural miss-appropriation I would like to point out that I am 1/16th Scottish. Clark is a proud Scottish name (‘Clarke’ is English). My nasty nasal East-London accent aside, I felt I had enough highland blood coursing through my veins last night to wear my Highland Dress with pride. (That said, only a true 100% Scot would find the chaffing that comes from wearing a rough tartan kilt and a sporran something that they don’t regret the day later). 

The event was held at a multi-award winning venue on the edge of Kielder Reservoir. This is an awe inspiring location, just a few miles south of the Scottish border. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful parts of the UK (it also happens to be the darkest sky location in Europe). As it happens it has been a location I have wanted to visit for 8 years. Back in 2011 I had a job interview with Heidi Mottram, CEO for Northumbrian Water. Back then she was relatively new in post and was pulling together her new team. In the interview I asked her (slightly cynically I suspect) to tell me about one of the publicly stated company values: ‘Ethical’. I was keen to hear how she would turn this lovely aspirational goal into something that a modern corporation could credibly claim as their own.

Without hesitation she talked confidently and passionately about the Northumbrian Water holiday cottages, situated around Kielder Reservoir. These cottages were, she claimed, the epitome of Ethical behaviour. Through maintaining these cottages NWL was ensuring that this incredibly rural and remote part of the country had local employment and a thriving healthy community. Her answer was inspiring (Heidi always is). I didn’t get the job but since then I have wanted to see this facility for myself. Last night I did. Stella and I stayed in one of the spectacular cottages (think Centre Parcs…just 1000 times better), it had the perfect balance of ecological sensitivity and heart-warming comfort. No wonder it is something of which NWL staff are rightly proud.

My first Burns Night involved numerous toasts, lots of songs, some lovely speeches and lots and lots of dancing. I even got to spend time with one off my childhood heroes, Olympic runner Steve Cram who now organises the annual Kielder Marathon around the reservoir. Of all the ‘facts’ I learnt about Rabbie (including that he sired 12 children and died at 37, I assume of exhaustion) my favourite is that Bob Dylan cites him as a major influence. As the night became day and the party transformed from a structured celebration into a frantic, glorious disco (aficionados of early noughties dance please note blog title!) this fact felt particularly resonant.

My most popular blog (measured by the number of hits) was no 169 back in September 2017. It was entitled ‘The Bravest Water Utility in the World’, and I shared a story about Wannon Water in Victoria, Australia. I think Northumbrian Water deserves a similar title. The Most Ethical Water Company? Probably. The Most Environmentally Conscious? I suspect so. The Most Fun to Spend a Night in a Kilt With! Undoubtedly.

Piers and Stella on Burns Nights
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